Shakespeare's Blood Fest Titus is Set to Music at Cleveland Public Theatre

Consider the following events: A man is de-limbed. A woman is raped and then has her tongue cut out and her hands chopped off. A man kills his son and later whacks off his own hand. Multiple fresh corpses are thrown into a pit. There are a couple beheadings. And then, to wrap it all up, a fatal stabbing, a woman killed with a corkscrew plunged into her eye, and two dudes baked into a pie that is consumed by, among others, their mom.

What do all those activities inspire you to do? If you answer, "Sing songs and dance," then you're on the perfect wavelength for Titus, a Grand and Gory Rock Musical, now at Cleveland Public Theatre.

This thumping bloodbath, conceived and directed with no-holds-barred muscularity by Craig J. George, is both cringe-inducing and funny. And unlike some rock-addled extravaganzas, the music by local talents Dennis Yurich and Alison Garrigan is always appropriate to the moment (sometimes raucous, sometimes mellow), and never itntrusive.

Of course, the source material is Shakespeare's oft-maligned Titus Andronicus, a lesser work of the master and one not often performed due to its slasher-movie level of carnage. And while the language of Shakespeare is still in evidence, you're not likely to walk away rolling iambic pentameter verses around in your head.

Instead this is a play, and a production, that aims for your primitive lizard brain and hits its target dead on. Hey, Charles Bronson/Death Wish freaks, you like revenge yarns? They don't come any more vengeful than this one. Indeed, the show opens with "Revenge Served," an upbeat ditty that sets the stage for the plasma-soaked slaughter to come.

Saturninus and Bassianus are in line to lead Rome after their dad, the emperor, goes toes up. But Titus, an honored but vicious general who just won a war against the Goths, is the people's choice. Titus turns down the position and backs Saturninus, played with fey fanaticism in a skintight flower print suit by Matt O'Shea.

Meanwhile, Titus seeks his first revenge by killing the eldest son of the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, acted and sung by the uber-multitalented Garrigan. She is decked out in steampunk attire, befitting her unofficial status as the goth/punk queen of Cleveland and crossing wires nicely with her role as the major domo of Talespinner Children's Theatre (hide your eyes, kiddies).

Sly Saturnius decides to marry Titus' daughter Lavinia (Justine Kunstler Zapin), even though she's already betrothed to his bro. But Tamora's secret lover, the Moor Aaron (rendered indelibly by the powerfully voiced Lawrence Charles) plots to have Bassianus killed so they can rape and mutilate Lavinia.

And on it goes. A bit of gravity is brought to the play by Dana Hart, who plays Titus with a resigned dignity when he's not breathing fire in the midst of his nefarious revenge missions. Val Kozlenko also stands out in the double roles of Lucius, Titus' son, and the craven Chiron.

Indeed, the entire cast captures the frenetic energy and go-for-broke momentum that powers this production. It features a bit of stage business during the Act 1 closer, "Vengeance," that may take the edge off your intermission appetite.

Staged on a brutally stark set by Todd S. Krispinsky, this always-riveting show features pitch-perfect choreography by Martin Cespedes and some truly inventive costuming touches by Jenniver Sparano (check out the neon fright wigs and wickedly wry and colorful bodysuits in "Revenge, Rape & Murder").

And a tip of a severed skull goes to sound designer Carlton Guc, as well as musical director Brad Wyner and his four-piece band that provides full rock accompaniment without overpowering the voices.

This is a version of Titus that even Shakespeare purists might actually enjoy, since they hate the script so much anyhow. For the rest of us, it's just a bloody blast.

Through March 22 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727,

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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